One of the things I love about genre films is how they shed light on the world we live in, as viewed by the writer and director and other people involved. More often than not, the fact that they don’t set out to do so only heightens their effectiveness in this regard. Look at Taken for instance, which conveys a peculiarly American fear of foreigners, and especially Islamic ones, within a nasty piece of work fronted by Liam Neeson. Or the way that caricature homosexuality is used as a shorthand for amoral decadence in historic action yarn 300 and rambling Prohibition tale Lawless.
What’s interesting is when filmmakers are acutely aware of the resonance of the choices they make and opt for ones that implicitly support a diverse worldview that accepts and understands difference. Which is what makes Premium Rush not just a fun action thriller, but one that arguably has in the form of cycle courier Wilee an agent of evolution as its hero, in contrast to the neanderthals whose adventures are more often chronicled in popular entertainment.
Lest that make Premium Rush come across like some form of liberal-approved viewing material, let me point out that it’s one of the most thrilling films I’ve seen in a long long time. Wilee’s shtik is that he doesn’t have brakes on his bike, and his high-speed journeys around New York bring the city to life with theme park adrenaline.
Interesting that Wilee is a white guy with a masters degree: he’s choosing to work as a courier rather than wear a grey suit to do work he’d find intolerable as many of his peers are now doing. His colleagues are people of colour, and are understandably sceptical of Wilee’s zen purism about something they’re doing as a means to an end. What for him is a lifstyle choice is for them a consequence of economic realities.
That detail is one of many interesting ones in a film that celebrates New York’s cultural diversity. The plot centres round a maguffin connected to a Chinese woman who wants to bring her son into America, having experienced problems with her homeland since an article she wrote about Tibet surfaced online. It all serves to make Premium Rush feel like a William Gibson five-minutes-from-now story, and the bad guys are very much on the side of the dinosaurs.
New York’s finest don’t come out well, with the main baddy a brute named after Forrest J Ackerman, perhaps not coincidentally the name of the editor of a magazine about monsters in Hollywood movies. Mostly operating from behind a wheel, he’s a brute who lives in a black and white world while Wilee and his peers are brightly coloured mammals dancing under the feet of the cops. Even the cycle cop isn’t a match for the couriers: where they steer in impossible arcs, and calculate possible trajectories in the blink of an eye, he moves in straight lines and just can’t keep up with them.
Ultimately Premium Rush is a movie by, for, and about agile thinkers. It’s a precision-tooled tale that’s perhaps a little too smartass in its construction at times, but structure too is an example of the playfulness that this film celebrates. Interesting that The Expendables 2 has just left our screens – with another tale of past-it good guys to come, we’re told – at the same time this sharp, witty, and small r radical film is getting its release. Writer-director David Koepp, ably supported by co-writer John Kamps and lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt are to be congratulated on a thriller that tickles the brain as well as getting adrenaline flowing.